While Congress considers elevating U.S. Cyber Command to a combatant command, the military's nascent cyber teams are getting their first taste of combat in the fifth domain, conducting both offensive and defensive maneuvers in the fight against the Islamic State group.
Those teams are cutting their teeth in the fight against ISIS, which has added a cyber component of its own not seen before in large terrorist organizations.
"The nation and every combatant commander can now call on cyber mission force teams to bring cyberspace effects in support of their operations," Lt. Gen. Kevin McLaughlin, CYBERCOM deputy commander, told the House Armed Services Committee during a June 22 hearing, including in the fight against ISIS.
McLaughlin said CYBERCOM's success will be dependent on three factors: "The quality of our people, the effectiveness of their capabilities and the proficiency that our people bring to bear in employing these capabilities."
The first and third points are dependent largely on recruitment and training.
CYBERCOM holds an annual, large-scale training exercise called Cyber Guard in Suffolk, Virginia, but that's not enough, McLaughlin said. Commanders are looking at creating a persistent training environment, similar to training programs elsewhere at the DoD.
"Cyber Guard is a great example. We have the ability to do high-fidelity, highly realistic training … The issue we have is we cannot do that at scale," he said. A persistent training environment would "allow us to do that type of training routinely — every week, every day — so that the men and women on our teams have the ability to do the level of training that we're doing down in Suffolk … Our job is to do that consistently, like we do in every other domain."
The second metric for success will be dependent on CYBERCOM's ability to acquire the latest, best offensive and defensive tools available.
"The ability to have the tools and capabilities and integrated suite — a defense-in-depth approach across our whole enterprise — we think is proving to be very effective [along with] the ability to bring in new technology," McLaughlin said. "That's one of the reasons a connection to Silicon Valley and other places is so important: We don't field something like a cyber capability that we're going field for a decade or a few decades. We want the latest capability and as soon as it's not the latest we want the next technology."
While that might seem like a tall order, the reality is the cyber domain has become so pervasive as to affect every other area of war fighting and defense.
"Cyber capabilities aren't just there to solve cyber problems," McLaughlin told the committee. "There are adversaries that present themselves in a variety of ways … They might have a cyber capability that I will use some other tool or capability to counter or they might have some non-cyber capability that we're going to use a cyber tool to counter."
The lesson: "Don't pigeon-hole cyber capabilities against cyber problems."
Aaron Boyd is an awarding-winning journalist currently serving as editor of Federal Times — a Washington, D.C. institution covering federal workforce and contracting for more than 50 years — and Fifth Domain — a news and information hub focused on cybersecurity and cyberwar from a civilian, military and international perspective.